A Response to the Theist's Guide

I first posted “The Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists” on Ebon Musings in June 2001. At that time, I promised that I would cite any theist who prepared an equivalent list and posted it on the internet. In the six and a half years since, I’ve had a total of two responses to that offer. One was discussed in June of last year.

Last month, I got a second reply from a theist calling himself Quixote. He told me that if he had heard of my essay earlier, I wouldn’t have had to wait this long, and I quite agree. He’s offered a sincere effort, for which I duly applaud him. I’m glad that he invested the time and effort to compose an honest response. I think his criteria also offer some insights into the mind of the believer, but I’ll offer some more specific comments before getting to that.

The primary thing I think readers should notice about Quixote’s list is that there is little or nothing along the lines of, “If we observed X, Y or Z, that would prove theism is false.” Instead, his essay is mainly concerned with abstract philosophical issues such as “prove that justice doesn’t exist”, or “prove that mind is more likely to arise from natural than supernatural causes”. No explanation is given as to how to accomplish any of these things or what a valid answer would look like. I believe I can claim that the conditions offered in my essay are far more concrete, objective and definite than Quixote’s, most of which are vague, ill-defined and subjective.

The first item on his list has to do with the existence of emotions and qualia:

Hope, joy, love, jealousy, personality, intelligence, and the like — we observe them everyday, both firsthand and in others. Both atheism and theism account for them in their systems, however, theism has a prima fascia advantage given these observations…. Personality appears to permeate the universe, which lends itself to theism over atheism. Were it demonstrated conclusively that these observations are more likely to obtain under atheism (not proved, mind you), I would deconvert.

First of all, I don’t know what Quixote means by personality “permeating the universe”, given that the only personalities we observe are our fellow human beings, and far from permeating the universe, we are presently confined to one small planet out of all the cosmos.

Second: I want to focus on Quixote’s claim about which system of thought has an advantage when it comes to explaining human emotions. He says it is “easier” to imagine a world in which these things are fundamental, while the idea of thoughts and emotions arising from matter is a “harder case to make”. In other words, Quixote’s claim is that he personally finds it difficult to imagine how an intelligent mind might arise from a material structure, and this cognitive incapacity is what leads him to conclude that mind and intelligence are more likely to be non-mechanistic and supernatural. In short, this is a God-of-the-Gaps argument from personal incredulity.

In fact, it’s not any easier to explain mind and personality under theism. Indeed, theism tends to consider these things to be irreducibly mysterious, which is the same thing as having no explanation at all. Even if the material causes of these sensations are difficult to explain precisely in an atheist worldview, atheism is at no disadvantage. Unless theism can truly explain these phenomena in a way that atheism cannot, there is no imbalance.

The second item:

I have heard humanity described as “DNA robots,” the latest development in the arms race concerned with the survival of DNA. This characterization seems reasonable. If this is accurate, then our selves are illusions. Our sense of purpose and meaning is illusory… If it could be demonstrated conclusively that I was deluded in thinking that life has meaning, I would deconvert.

This is just wrong. Even if human beings are the outcome of a process of evolution that works by propagating genes, it does not follow by any means that our sense of purpose and meaning are illusory. Our genes may have brought us into existence, but that does not mandate that their purposes are our purposes, nor that we are unable to act against them. We are creatures of reason and intellect, and even if those traits originally evolved for reasons of survival advantage, we can employ them to different ends. We can choose not to reproduce, if we desire. We can choose to value nationality or creed more highly than genetics. We can even use genetic manipulation to take deliberate control of our future adaptation. As no less a scientist than Richard Dawkins put it, “We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.”

Quixote’s argument is a basic logical fallacy: the claim that the products of a purposeless process must be purposeless themselves. This is like saying that an engineer can’t build fast cars unless he’s a champion sprinter, or that a soft liquid like water cannot create hard sedimentary stone, or that heavy, non-buoyant metal plates cannot be welded together into a ship that floats or a plane that flies. The product of a process may exhibit qualities not possessed by the process itself. If we choose to find purpose and meaning in pursuing a certain activity, then that purpose and meaning, by definition, is real to us. There is no magical extra ingredient necessary, no elixir of absolute meaningfulness that must be added. Since his premises here are incorrect, I don’t think the question of purpose can matter either way when it comes to deciding between atheism and theism, and I’ll move on.

Good and Evil, the Problem of Evil, an objective morality. If it could be demonstrated that these are illusory concepts as well, or that they are more likely to proceed from irrational matter, I would deconvert.

As in the last point, these are vague philosophical questions with no objective standard of fulfillment. How would you show that good and evil are “illusory”? How could you prove that they are “more likely” to arise from matter? More likely than what?

Quixote is aware of my proposal for a system of non-theistic objective morality, universal utilitarianism. I’m grateful for his serious consideration of it, but I think he’s partially missed the point:

The problem is not that Universal utilitarianism is a bad moral code. It is an excellent moral code. The problem is that UU assumes as its base a portion of the objective moral standard it denies exists.

I’ve read this several times and I still can’t tell what it means. Universal utilitarianism is an objective system of morality, in that it has as its goal a particular aim (the minimization of suffering and the maximization of happiness) such that any action is either actually in accord with this aim (and thus right), or actually not in accord with this aim (and thus wrong). The question of which of these is the case for any given action is not a matter of mere opinion or subjective preference, but a matter of empirical fact which can be resolved by sufficiently careful examination of the world. That is what it means for a system of thought to be objective. The objectivity of UU is not “smuggled in” or “assumed”, but is rather a logically inevitable consequence of the axioms it is built on. Those axioms, in turn, appeal to aspects of human experience (the existence of empathy and the desirability of happiness) that are universal or nearly so, and that neither contain nor require any appeal to the gods or any other supernatural entity.

Those who claim that good is only a human construct act as though it permeated the structure of the universe.

Of course morality does not “permeate the structure of the universe”. If one atom collides with another, there is no question of which one was in the right. If a comet crashes into Jupiter, it is senseless to ask whether it was unjust for that comet to do so. When an epidemic strikes a human population, we do not denounce the germs as evil. Morality exists only in reference to intelligent, self-aware persons and the acts we commit that affect each other. Quixote’s claims about morality seem to contain the bizarre implication that every event, even those that don’t involve intelligent agents or even living things, should be judged as having a moral value.

The fourth item on this list rehashes the first:

If it could be demonstrated that rational thought is more likely to arise from irrational matter and causes than from an intelligent agent, I would deconvert.

This is the first empirical criterion on Quixote’s list. Not coincidentally, I’d also argue that, by any reasonable standard of judging the question, this criterion has already been met.

We have abundant evidence that thought and personhood arise from, and are unified with, the normal structure and operation of a physical brain – which is why injury, disease, and other insults to the brain can induce profound alterations in a person’s consciousness. (This evidence is detailed in my essay “A Ghost in the Machine“, which Quixote may not have come across.) By contrast, I know of no evidence whatsoever that personality can exist in the absence of a brain or other comparable physical structure.

…[I]f it were demonstrated that justice is illusory, I would deconvert.

Again, atheism is compatible with the objective existence of justice. And again, this is a vague and subjective criterion with no explanation given of how it could be fulfilled. What evidence or argument would demonstrate that “justice is illusory”? What does that even mean?

If it could be demonstrated conclusively that the sensus divinitatis and theistic experience is the result of a “god gene” or some other natural cause, I would deconvert.

As mentioned above, my essay “A Ghost in the Machine” discusses the evidence for the neurological roots of religious experience, including studies that can reproduce these experiences on demand by magnetically stimulating the brain.

As I mentioned above, I think Quixote’s criteria are probably a good snapshot of why most people believe in God. There’s little or nothing in the way of empirical evidence regarding physical phenomena in the world; rather, it’s mostly philosophical questions of mind, morality and justice, combined with his personal opinions of what strikes him as more likely. These issues, it seems, convince Quixote that a divinity exists, without even studying the real world to see if this belief makes any concrete predictions that can be tested.

But the question of God’s existence is not a philosophical matter; it’s an empirical matter. Common sense is not a reliable tool when it comes to understanding the true nature of the universe. Not even philosophy is a reliable tool for that. If we want to obtain reliable truth about the way the world is, we need to guide our reasoning with evidence. We need to let the facts guide our judgment.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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